Free essay from our new issue: Tracy Wan on Before Sunrise, Before Sunset & Before Midnight
by Tracy Wan
[ sunrise ]
Three summers ago, tucked between its gauzy, languid days, I found magic. I was twenty and alienated—by my own choosing, but also by a lack of choice. I needed magic, although I wouldn’t know that until, well, now. It was the kind of magic made possible through nostalgia for no real particulars, or the kind that makes this nostalgia possible, I’m not sure. Here’s what I know: the singularity of some experiences you will never accurately appraise until they disappear, like the sobering hues of the world as you take off your sunglasses at sunset.
But that summer was for sunrises, the very beginnings. In Before Sunrise, a young Julie Delpy says to baby-faced Ethan Hawke, as Celine to Jesse: “I believe if there’s any kind of God it wouldn’t be in any of us, not you or me but just this little space in between.” He was silent, and I was too. And then she said, “If there’s any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something,” and I felt it sink into my porous being.
In that little space between myself and these characters, that script, was the start of something affirmative, a pattern I would not see until much later. Because then, in June, I fell in love.
On occasion, life will come at you with a momentum so strong you have no choice but to allow it, let your body be carried by it, make your decisions as you’re moving and never jump out of the car. When Celine stayed with Jesse in Vienna, she was acquiescing to this moment, and aren’t we all so glad she did? When Jesse says, “I would marry you, alright?” we know he’s already there.
It feels wrong to compare falling in love to falling in love in the movies, but I’ll do it, because we met on a film set and that should be enough. And if that’s not enough, I’ll say that the day I met him I told my best friend, “I met him,” and she understood, and I meant it. It’s hard to deny or ration something that lands fully-formed into your chest. And if that’s not enough, well, if you asked me a thousand days from that day, I still would nod, as in, I had no choice, as in, “Let me get my bag.”
That summer we saw a lot of sunrises together. On a fall day he said “I love you” and it was not a learning, but a truth. I caught the red in his beard once and—you’ll laugh—thought of Jesse. How could I not.
[ sunset ]
A year later, I left.
As you move away from someone you love the impulse is to justify it with growth, as though through the inflation of each other’s independence and particularities you’ll bridge the gap together. Some people are gifted at collapsing distance upon itself, reducing it to an abstraction, but I couldn’t. I counted the days, the miles, the silences between everything. We stretched thinner and thinner with every phone conversation, fighting over who was giving up more, measuring who was sadder, always threatening to snap. I did most of this.
The first mistake was to move away for work, assuming that labour could turn into love, and that the one you love will catch up. Because, as irony would have it, love also turns into labour, and it’s harder to keep up with.
When we see Jesse and Celine again, it’s in Before Sunset, and it’s been nine years. They did not meet again in Vienna, and then life happened: he got married and cynical, and she got political and cynical. “Young and stupid,” Celine says of their former selves, but reaffirms the very connection they drew nine years prior: “I guess when you’re young, you just believe there’ll be many people with whom you’ll connect with. Later in life, you realize it only happens a few times.” Their conversation swells and gushes from the very moment they see each other again, and never ceases. Celine confesses that more than loneliness, she hates feeling estranged from a lover, but the convenience is that Jesse would never fit the profile. Despite the intercontinental distance, and despite the decade in-between. Later, she hugs him:
Celine: I want to see if you stay together or if you dissolve into molecules.
Jesse: How am I doing?
Celine: Still here.
Jesse: Good, I like being here.
Being here was all he had to do. He wrote a book to call out to her, and she came.
The Before films have gathered many accolades—all of which they deserve, some of which are credited to the writing. The “realism” of the dialogue is so vivid, so intimately touching to us that we wonder if it’s improvisation (no; all three are completely scripted) or the actors/co-writers playing themselves (maybe a little bit). I keep thinking about this realism as a Linklater Reality—the idyllic, topmost layer of reality as we know it. Sampled from life. Skimmed, curated. The best of the best and the worst. It’s hard not to make it exemplary. When I watch Celine and Jesse together, a little creature mewls in my chest. It’s the heart’s lament: Could it be this easy? Is the only thing we need presence, and attention? And worse—will I not see the beauty in these days, until the light is gone?
“You feel far away,” I’d whisper on the phone sometimes, hesitating to release the words into the universe.
“You feel like you’re next to me,” he’d reply. But when he said my name, it felt like an apology.
[ midnight ]
Like developing a sudden affinity for cilantro, falling out of love is surprising, but not dismaying, to the body fostering the change. Previous relationships had come and gone, following the ebb and flows of a growing self-knowledge and a shrinking attention span. But some loves you don’t fall out of—even the word “falling” relieves you of your responsibility. It’s consolation. It’s not your fault. Some loves you have to wrestle out of yourself, kicking and screaming and very much alive.
Around the time Before Midnight started playing in theaters in Toronto, I knew it was the end but did not know how to tell myself this yet. I’d asked him to come visit and see it with me—the one thing I ask, it’s important to me, don’t you know how formative they are to me?—but he didn’t, couldn’t, something about work. Labour became love, and love became labour, and somewhere between these two moments in time we had stopped believing in the same things.
So I went with a friend, and afterwards found myself sitting in a plush seat in the dark, angry at Celine and Jesse for the first time, the very immature, over-emotional boil of not getting what you want. What I felt was no longer the perceived magic of a twenty year old falling uncannily in love in tandem with other twentysomethings on screen, but instead a very palpable chasm. Their love did not feel real anymore, which does not stem from the credibility of the film as much as it did from my emotional concerns at the time: in truth, my love did not feel real anymore.
I clenched my fists when I watched them at their worst, which was still better than most worsts. “Can you be my friend for two seconds?” Jesse asks her in the middle of a fight, in the middle of their ten years of unmarried-married life. She nods, smiles briefly, and they hold hands. It’s a beautiful moment, but someone entrenched in their own precocious self-pity would never see that, and I didn’t. Later, Jesse reminds her, “This is real life. It’s not perfect, but it’s real,” and I said under my breath, “Please.”
The romantic in me believed this “real life” of theirs, she truly did, and will again. In this world, love is always a possibility. Will they meet in Vienna in six months? Will Jesse miss his plane? Will they love each other for 50 more years? The temporality of the films allows for as much: with every before is the implication of an after. With them, we see the sun rise, set, and disappear.
“Still there, still there, still there, gone,” Celine says quietly, as she and Jesse watch the sun tuck itself into the Ionian Sea. But the camera stays on their faces—not gone yet. We see a passing glimpse of sadness, but it is just that: passing. As the film’s last line, she says, filling all of us with hope: “It must have been quite the night we’re about to have.”
And maybe that’s the permission that this Linklater Love gives us. An infrangible faith in potential, in the slow walk down stony paths that will always lead to somewhere beautiful. The hope and the danger. “That’s what fucks us up,” their friend Ariadni cautions, during their last lunch in Greece. “Romance, the notion of a soulmate.” And although Celine and Jesse (and Richard, and Julie, and Ethan) try very hard not to echo this archetype, they are soul mates—blemished and bruised and brooding, yes, but still soul mates, their frequencies humming to an intuitive, otherworldly understanding of each other, their conversations philosophical, their banter perfect. The privilege of years of writing and rewriting, I suppose.
And for a while, that was charming; a flawed but ideal love. It was bright, and it was the best hours out of eighteen years, and I was blind to the possibility of anything else. Myopia is often a side effect of falling in love—the magic of this life seems very close, and very clear. It’s an ignited world, punctuated by sunrises and sunsets. But then, inevitably, midnight came for this love of mine, a less-than-cinematic love. In this chronology, when before runs out there is no after. It was still there, still there, still there. Now it’s gone.
Tracy Wan is a writer living in Toronto, although she’s not quite sure what she’s doing there. She loves good advertising, bad television, and discovering novelty flavours.
This essay currently appears in the February 2014 issue of Bright Wall/Dark Room Magazine. To read the rest of the issue, download the Bright Wall/Dark Room app to your iPhone or iPad for free, or purchase a copy of the issue for just $1 and receive full access to the issue online.
La Jetée (1962)
TIME BUILDS ITSELF PAINLESSLY AROUND THEM
by Brianna Ashby
“We are a landscape of all we have seen.” –Isamu Noguchi
Every summer, until the age of about five, my parents and I drove to Solomonʼs Island, Maryland to visit my grandparents at their home on the beach. Early every afternoon I followed my grandmother down the back stairs onto the sand and trailed behind her as we walked along the shore. Along the way she would stop and trace shapes around little treasures with her big toe—seashells, sea glass, sharkʼs teeth—that I would scoop up and plunk into my little plastic bucket. One afternoon we left the bucket behind; she had gotten me a beach ball, red and blue and yellow and white, the colors twirling like an inflatable pinwheel. As we were passing it back and forth a wind kicked up and carried the ball out to sea. Small and sad and helpless I watched as it bobbed up and down on the waves and drifted further and further away. A moment later, I stood frozen in abject terror as I watched my grandmother dive into the cloudy water in furious pursuit of the disappearing ball; I was convinced that she was going to be swept under the waves and that I would be the one to blame. I stood on the brink of the ocean, nearly hysterical, for a million years before I saw her paddling to shore. The ball was gone, but what did I care? I let her carry me home.
“Nothing tells memories from ordinary moments. Only afterwards do they claim remembrance on account of their scars.”
La Jetée is the story of a man, The Man, haunted by a traumatic event from his childhood; a death on the pier at Orly Airport, sometime before the start of World War Three. His parents had taken him there to watch the planes, as was customary on Sundays before the hostilities broke out. There was an incident on the boarding platform. A man was killed. Although the scene was unspeakable, it wasnʼt the manʼs death that haunted him but the face of The Woman standing at the end of the pier. Through the chaos and horror he saw her more clearly than he had ever seen anything before and from that moment on he would keep her with him always, a beacon of tranquility and peace that carried him through his soldierʼs life. Some memories, especially those from our childhoods, are powerful enough to stay with us, to lead us back to that particular instant in that particular place that will exist forever in our minds. Sometimes a recollection is so powerful that it becomes something of an obsession, blotting out the weaker memories until the past and the present become one and the same. After years of turning inward to escape the atrocities of war, her face was all he could see.
In the aftermath of the Third World War Paris was destroyed, and with the Earthʼs surface “rotten with radioactivity,” all of the survivors fled underground to the Palais de Chaillot galleries. It is in this post-apocalyptic landscape that we meet The Man who is no longer a solider, but a prisoner of war. With outer space off-limits for colonization, mankindʼs only hope for survival is “to call pastand future to the rescue of the present,” to travel through time and carry back with them the building blocks for a new civilization. The scientists of the victorious parties begin conducting experiments on the prisoners in the hopes of finding a subject whose mental images are strong enough to fortify them against the shock of time travel; if a man can wholly conceive or dream atime and place he can live there. The experiments fail, resulting in disappointment, madness, and death for the subjects, until they reach The Man and The Woman whose face he cannot shake.
They send him back.
After ten days the images begin to materialize, fragments of the world before it was turned to rubble: a field, an empty bedroom, a “real” bedroom, real children, birds, cats, graves. On day sixteen, The Man is on the empty pier at Orly, and she is standing alone at the end. He begins to see her everywhere- in a car, on the pier- she is omnipresent. On the thirtieth day, they finally meet, walking through the sun-dappled gardens of Paris, an unspoken,unadulterated trust growing between them. No memories. No plans. The inventors send him back again and again, to meet her in different places and at different times, and she begins to welcome this strange visitor into her world. She affectionately calls him her ghost. They fall in love. On the fiftieth day they meet in a museum full of “ageless animals,” meandering together through the empty galleries, marveling at the static displays of what was once wild and free, a monument to the past, a resplendent mausoleum.
The inventors bring him back to the present, and flush with success, they send him into the future to retrieve the means of survival for humankind. The people of the future offer to let The Man remain with them and escape his inevitable demise at the hands of his captors, but he has a different request: to return to his childhood, to that Sunday afternoon at Orly in the hopes of meeting his love at their inception. Instead of choosing to live in a pacified, but wholly alien future, he chose to return to the memory of the only place that felt like home, the only face that felt like home.
Itʼs the same reason we keep stacks of photographs and snapshots framed next to our bedsides - we need the comfort and stability of the familiar, even if what weʼre returning to is sad or traumatic. Itʼs what we know. Looking to the future can be exciting, but itʼs also terrifying, and itʼs nearly impossible to steel yourself for the shock of the new without the cushion of the past to fall back on. We can visit our histories as often as weʼd like, but we were never meant to live there. We can reach back and grab hold of those beacons of peace, hope, and love that we have squirreled away and carry them with us into the future because, eventually, we all have to make our way forward. Pushing on into the unknown is uncomfortable but necessary for our sanity, for our survival, instead of stagnating, mired in the past, trapped in the museums weʼve built to house our precious memories.
Over the years Iʼve been a frequent visitor to that patch of sand on Solomonʼs Island, where I stood transfixed squinting into the sun, frantically scanning the horizon for my grandmotherʼs bobbing shape. I take a deep breath and realize that I am no longer rooted to that spot. I relax my brow and uncrossing my fingers I dig my toes into the sand and everything is different, but everything is the same. In just a moment my abject terror will give way to unbridled joy and my grandmother will appear to carry me home. Time marches on.
Brianna Ashby's grandmother gave her another beach ball when she graduated from college. She managed to lose that one too.
LIFE IS WHAT HAPPENS TO YOU WHILE YOU’RE BUSY MAKING OTHER PLANS.
by Brianna Ashby
I sat on the toilet for at least ten minutes, crossing and uncrossing my eyes, trying to make sure that the faint pink line that had appeared in the window wasn’t a figment of my imagination, or an optical illusion, or some strange shard of refracted pinkness that was magically hovering just over that particular spot. I put the stick on the edge of the tub and watched as the line grew darker and more definite and my heartbeat grew louder and more deafening and I think I said something like, Holy Shit. I left the urine soaked harbinger of change where it lay and walked into the kitchen on legs that felt like petrified wood, and even though the look on my face very clearly said it all, I had to force the words out so I could begin to believe them. After a few minutes of Are you sure? I’m sure. How sure? Four tests sure. Holy Shit, the shock began to soften. We walked the fifteen paces from the stove to the couch hand in hand, and sat, our fingers intertwined and resting atop my unsuspecting belly, the air around us imperceptibly vibrating like a cloud of hummingbirds.
We’re having a baby.
By nature I am a worrier, a perfectionist, and a hypothetical soothsayer; a mild neurotic who thinks she can ordain anything that could possibly happen at any time in the future. (I also find planning ahead tremendously advantageous, which coupled with the aforementioned traits, makes me a real tour de force among obsessives.) So, naturally, the second I saw the fuzzy pink apparition of a line start to appear on my fourth home pregnancy test, my mind took off in all kinds of directions. Having children lends itself quite freely to lying awake at night sick over the pitiful state of the world, the oppressive cost of higher education, and whether or not the paint in your window sashes has been tested for lead, but these superficial worries are nothing compared to the deep intestine-wringing fantods that accompany one particular late night thought:
Am I a good parent?
Shouldering the responsibility of growing and raising a well-adjusted child with all ten fingers and ten toes is staggering, and even the smallest hiccup in the process can feel like the most epic failure. Parents tend to take everything personally, from the mundane to the earth shattering. A toddler’s distaste for spinach or a teenager’s rebellion, those things are the stuff of sitcoms and laundry detergent commercials, and yet, they still resonate as failures, no matter how hilariously insignificant they may be. Any imperfections in our children tend to magnify our own, and so it becomes that, in the pursuit of the very best life for our kids, we set lofty goals and hold to unrealistic expectations that the universe has not only signed off on our plans, but that it’s also going to help us along. And if you’ve ever had any dealings with the universe, you know that this is just not the case.
Watching the trials and tribulations of the Buckman family, as they unfold in Parenthood, is an exercise in humility for those of us trying to raise our kids so that they don’t become serial killers—but it’s not so child-centric a film that it becomes irrelevant to everyone else. We all have people in our lives whose function (or dysfunction) have helped mold us into the human beings that we are, whose both obvious and poorly disguised neuroses become fodder for ribald holiday jesting and future sessions with our therapists. The Buckman children are no different, all products of their upbringing, the sons and daughters of a hard-drinking abrasive father (Jason Robards) and a quiet mostly subservient mother (Eileen Ryan).
Gil (Steve Martin) is an obsessive perfectionist so hell bent on not repeating the same mistakes his father made with him that he would go to nearly any lengths to be seen as a hero to his children, often to the detriment of his own personal and professional aspirations. Helen (Dianne Wiest) is an embittered divorcée whose well of distrust toward men runs deep; her transparent unhappiness and bitter resentment has driven her own son into virtual silence and her daughter intto blatant rebellion. Susan (Harley Kozak) was something of a free-wheeling wild child until she settled down with Nathan (Rick Moranis), whose fastidiousness and controlling nature seemed like the right answer for her aimlessness. At first, she felt grounded, but now she just feels stifled. Larry (Tom Hulce) is your run-of-the-mill no-goodnik. The long haired, leather-clad black sheep baby of the family, Larry shows up after a ten year absence with a chip on his shoulder, as well as a serious gambling problem and an illegitimate son. The one thing that all the adult Buckman children have in common is a wish to do right by their parents, and to do right as parents, both of which are a struggle, if largely against themselves.
When Gil and his wife Karen are faced with the reality that their eldest son is struggling with emotional problems that will effectually bar him from “normal” public school, their immediate reaction is complete denial. People tend to react poorly to bad news, and people who depend on a tenuous façade of perfection to hold it together naturally pretend that whatever they’ve just heard is somehow a terrible mistake. It is infinitely easier to live in a fantasy world than admit that your reality is flawed, so we shift the blame (for lack of a better term) to avoid shouldering any responsibility for what went wrong.
Meanwhile, as Gil is over-zealously coaching Little League and throwing the full weight of his desperation into positive affirmations, Susan is watching with increasing dismay as Nathan drills their adorable chubby-cheeked three-year-old daughter with flashcards to prepare her for the SATs. Nathan’s rather terrifying hyper-involved parenting has made their child into a kind of tiny robot—a toddler who has no idea why a child her age would twirl around and around in circles until they fell down—and his unrelenting pursuit of a tangential Nobel Prize win has left Susan out in the cold. Still, their children don’t have problems. They don’t have problems. Nope. Other people have problems.
Helen has problems.
From the outside, it would appear that Helen, still reeling from the split with her husband, has her hands full with two unruly and undisciplined children that couldn’t give two shits about anything their mother has to say. The other Buckmans take pity on Helen and her kids, seeing them as casualties of our ruthless modern times, but secretly, I’m sure they’re all quite relieved that this textbook case of familial dysfunction exists, if only to divert attention from their own equally dubious issues.
Garry (Joaquin Phoenix, known as “Leaf Phoenix” back in 1989) is frightfully introverted, sullen, secretive, and unresponsive, having retreated inward since his father’s unceremonious abandonment, and Julie (Martha Plimpton) is torturing her mother with standard teenage fare: yelling, slamming doors, acting out, and dating boys that Helen doesn’t approve of, especially “that Tod” (Keanu Reeves). To spite her mother, Julie runs off with Tod, proclaiming that they’re in love! she needs him!, and all of the motherly reproaches in the world couldn’t tear them apart. Tod is a breath of fresh air in what becomes a pretty depressing domestic clusterfuck. Although he’s not terribly bright, he is charming, adorable, and wholly uncomplicated. Until he and Julie end up husband and wife, that is.
Bruised, but not crippled, by the news that her baby girl has married “that Tod,” Helen digs in her heels and allows the newlyweds to live under her roof, and slowly begins to allow Tod into her life. Goofy, approachable, and most importantly, male, Tod is the only person able to penetrate Garry’s defenses, having himself come from a place where he learned early on that “they’ll let any asshole be a father.” Seeing Tod’s ease in dealing with her children, and the ease with which he found himself a place in her family, Helen stops trying so hard to force herself into Gary and Julie’s lives, and realizes that sometimes, just being there is enough.
It’s easy to get sucked into a sort of vortex after a traumatic event, or an extended run of feeling impotent, or stagnant, or unappreciated. And it’s safe to say that the Buckmans are all swirling around right in the very middle of it, totally unable to see a way out. Tod’s introduction into the whole mess provides some desperately needed objectivity, and a shot of hope that catalyzes a series of crucial changes in Helen, and Gary and Julie, and more indirectly, in the rest of the Buckman siblings, who finally begin to own up to their shortcomings as parents, and as people just trying to get along.
Realizing they all have to help themselves before they can truly help their children, Helen and Gil and Susan and the rest start facing their fears head on, each small act of emotional bravery helping to pull them out of the mess they were wallowing in. Admittedly, a shotgun wedding between two clueless teenagers is far from ideal, but it serves as a strong example that sometimes imperfect ideas can become workable solutions.
As adults, we’re burdened with a fear of repeating the past, as well as an anxiety about the future, both of which can be paralyzing. When we’re young, our frame of reference is smaller, and the future is more exciting than daunting, so we’re far more willing to dive into our lives without the hindrance of preconception. We get lost in all of the analysis and over-analysis and introspection and worry, and we have so much wrapped up in the idea of leading a “successful” life, that we tend to miss the fact that sometimes things are what they are and exactly what they need to be.
Parents, as a rule, want to give their kids whatever they want, to give them the gifts and wisdom that will allow them to lead peerlessly wonderful lives. Often, though, we end up burdening them (and ourselves) with all our good intentions. We try to guide our children down the “right” path instead of letting them be who and what they’re going to be, especially if they’re going to turn out anything like us. Everyone has their own insecurities, which even the idea of parenthood tends to exacerbate a million fold, and this self-loathing (mild or otherwise) blinds us to the fact that all we can do is our best—and that our best is good enough. We have to be good to ourselves before we can be good to anyone else, and that means giving ourselves a break. Everyone deserves to be happy, even us, as adults and as parents, and part of that happiness comes from learning to let go of our fears of failure and simply accepting that life is a rollercoaster, not a merry-go-round, as Grandma would say. Our children will find happiness in their own time and on their own terms and all we can do is give them a lantern, or a Tod, to help light the way. The path is up to them.
Brianna Ashby is the surprisingly well-rested mother of a nearly three year old who, since her daughter’s birth, has finally learned to stop worrying and love the bedlam.